Dead letters

It says something about the state of the publishing industry that some of its most successful authors are the dead ones. J.R.R. Tolkien, of course, was just on the fiction bestseller list with The Children of Hurin, a cobbled-together work that will take its place just behind The Silmarillion as one of Tolkien’s most purchased and least read works. Poor old Ernest Hemingway’s papers have been picked over as thoroughly as a carcass on the Serengeti, with steadily diminishing returns. (Have even hardcore Papaphiles gotten all the way through True at First Light? Let’s see some hands.)   

It’s one thing for an author’s heirs to pick through his leavings, or even commission brand new works (cf., the estates of Margaret Mitchell and Ian Fleming), but I didn’t realize there were living authors who set out to turn themselves into posthumous brand names: horror writer V.C. Andrews and most notably Robert Ludlum

I’m no snob about thrillers — I read plenty of them — but it seems this arrangement favors writers whose work relies more on gimmicks and plotting than character and voice. I could imagine somebody churning out more Travis McGee books in a pastiche of John D. MacDonald’s style, but I don’t see George Pelecanos or Dennis Lehane lending themselves to this sort of treatment.

It does give the term “ghost writer” a whole new meaning, though, doesn’t it?   

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